News | 11 April 2023
Share on social

Behind the hoarding: Town Hall site visit

There’s a lot to love about the Wellington Town Hall. It’s reputed to have one of the best acoustic chambers in the world, it’s lovely to look at, and it has a history full of memorable stories, including the time the ceiling, dead pigeons and their nests collapsed onto an international act during their concert.

Town Hall interior area under construction with cranes
Town Hall interior area under construction with cranes.

Redevelopment work began in 2019 and was originally programmed for completion in 2023, but COVID-19 lockdowns, worker and materials shortages and changes caused by what was discovered in the building and in the ground, means the mahi will now be finished in 2025.  

At any given time, there are 90—120 people working on site. 

“Health and safety drives everything here,” says Town Hall project director Bede Crestani, “it’s our number one measure on site.”   

“We've got a good safety record on this complex project. We work with people we absolutely trust, who go over and above every day to give Wellington a venue that will last another 100 years.”  

Now, after a marathon effort, the Wellington Town Hall is emerging from its scaffolding, as shown by these photos taken during a site tour in early Poutūterangi/March 2023. 

Sheet piling in process
Sheet piling in process.

Sheet piling is interlocking steelwork, which is bedded into the alluvial layer about 6m down, to act as a retaining wall to prevent water from entering the new basement.

The auditorium basement will have new stage lifts, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's (NZSO) recording spaces, and new public toilets.

Town Hall interior upper level under construction
The Town Hall's interior upper level under construction.

The bracing underneath the gallery is there to support it while the sheet piling is installed, and the new basement is formed and put on the last of the base isolators.

The upper bracing supports the scaffold that allows the roof space to be worked in and the ceiling repaired.  

In a lesson learned for anyone aspiring to do up an historic building, “You can do all the testing you like, but you never know what’s under the ground or behind a wall”.

The actual temporary works installed were about seven times what had originally been planned, all due to ground conditions and what was discovered.  

The finished auditorium will look very original, more in keeping with its 1904 vibe, than its 1992 glow up.

Stairs leading to the old Council chambers.
Stairs leading to the old Council Chamber.

The Debating/Council Chamber remains in the Town Hall.

It will be a flexible space used by Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s New Zealand School of Music—Te Kōkī for teaching and performance and by the Council.

Exterior of the Town Hall.
Newly reinforced columns.

The exterior columns are made of solid brick and were not originally reinforced, but now have tensioned steel rods through the centre.

When the building shakes, they will move on low friction slider plates, the same as the rest of the building.  

What you don't see…
The exterior walls of the main Town Hall will be returned to their original state, and new modern walls installed on the ends of the West Hall, where the scaffold is in the left of this photo. 

The blue stone at the base of the building (painted grey in the 1990s) will be placed back onto the concrete. We think it came from a quarry in Melbourne, brought to Wellington as ballast in a ship.  

Heritage guidance is that everything from the building should stay on site. One idea is to use the foundation stones displaced by the base isolators in the landscaping outside the Town Hall. Other heritage items will be reused, retained or disposed of as a last resort. 

What about the world-famous acoustics?  
The Town Hall's auditorium is reputed to be in the world’s Top 10 venues for symphonic performances because of its acoustic qualities. There is a bit of debate about this, but we know that it has really good acoustics because of its classic shoe box design and the many outstanding concerts and recordings produced in the auditorium over the years. 

Preserving the acoustics is critical in the redevelopment. In addition to making sure the auditorium’s geometry is undisturbed, shielding has been added to the roof to block outside noise from traffic, sirens and the nearby helipad, and the old high-pressure mechanical air in the ceiling has been replaced.

The new aircon uses a displacement ventilation system which introduces high-volume, low-pressure air, which should be better and quieter during performances. 

When it re-opens, the Town Hall will be a world-class musical and recording venue with improved rehearsal and performance space. 

It will be a base for civic and community events and be part of a centre of musical excellence for NZSO and Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s New Zealand School of Music—Te Kōkī. 

The redeveloped, much-loved Wellington Town Hall, with its wonderful auditorium and world-class acoustics, will be at the heart of the national music centre. 

The NZSO and Te KōKī and many of the Council’s civic activities will co-locate across the building. This will bring students, professional musicians and other industry creatives back into the heart of Wellington to provide some of the best performance and education experiences in the world.